“How dare you.”
We might not say it out loud, but we certainly feel it when someone says or does something that goes too far.
Why do we take offense? Because we sense disrespect. It could be a blatant insult, a backhanded compliment, a joke in poor taste, or just a moment when someone is being less than considerate of our feelings.
The qualifying factor is that it hurts, because offenses strike at our sense of self. Offenses target what we hold sacred or where we’re most vulnerable to criticism. They can leave us feeling belittled, unappreciated, and often resentful.
Triggers vary from person to person, but there are some universally offensive themes. Direct attacks on our character or appearance are nearly sure bets, but we are also likely to react when someone takes aim at our point of view. According to Justin Baksh, a therapist and Chief Clinical Officer at Foundations Wellness Center, most offenses result when we feel like our belief system has been challenged or compromised in some way.
“Your beliefs are your identity and what you represent. You identify so strongly with them, in fact, that an attack on your belief system equates to an attack on you personally,” Baksh said.
Offenses highlight what we care about. If you’re indifferent to a particular issue, you’re not going to be offended if someone denigrates it, no matter how inflammatory the language. But when someone touches on something you’re personally invested in, it suddenly becomes much harder to keep your cool.
This is why a debate may start out friendly, but quickly becomes combative the more offense someone takes. Logic gives way to emotion, tensions escalate, voices get louder, and soon the original point of the discussion gets lost in a contest for who is going to be the last one heard.
“Most of us find it difficult to disengage in the heat of the moment. Why? Because it is acknowledging a loss,” Baksh said. “The other person is not respecting you or not hearing you, so why would you walk away? One of the most hurtful things as a human being is feeling as though you are not valued. It’s deeply offensive to us.”
Origins of Outrage Culture
A favorite topic among contemporary-culture critics is how easily offended people have become. They often point to the rise of trigger warnings and safe spaces—things originally developed to help traumatized soldiers and rape survivors—that are now used to shield highly sensitive individuals from any perceived judgment or ridicule, no matter how small.
What’s behind our hypersensitive society? A widespread sense of inflated entitlement and a cultural trend bent toward strict political correctness are common culprits, but other factors add fuel to the fire.
Social media plays a significant role. According to Tho Bishop, a political scientist and social-media director of the Mises Institute, we now know a lot more about the viewpoints of people than we ever did before, creating more opportunities to be offended.
“Suddenly, an uncle who was good at observing the unspoken rule of no politics at the dinner table is now posting inflammatory memes and questionably sourced articles supporting (or insulting) the politician of their choice,” Bishop said. “It’s not surprising to see our views of others change the more we know about what actually goes through their head.”
We also live in a world where there is more insult ammunition than ever before. From political ads and cable news commentators constantly denigrating the opposing side, to movies and television programs dedicated to pushing buttons and inflaming outrage, we’re at the mercy of powerful megaphones broadcasting offensive material.
“Modern politics isn’t simply about explaining why your views are better, but why the other side wants to harm you,” Bishop said. “While this is great for politicians, their consultants, and the media that benefits from the emotionally charged response to this game, the result has been far too many friendships ended and families strained.”
The interactive aspects of modern media also create opportunities for insult that previously didn’t exist. According to psychologist Talya Miron-Shatz, a visiting researcher at Cambridge University and CEO of Buddy&Soul (a platform for personal development), we now live in a world where what others think about us can be measured in likes and shares. With these metrics, we can judge how much (or how little) we’re worth compared to our peers, making our thoughts and image vulnerable to new levels of scrutiny.
“This whole realm of social offenses was irrelevant a few years ago,” Miron-Shatz said. “You didn’t use to know who thought what about whom, and now, it is all in your face all the time.”
Because offenses hurt, our initial reaction to them is often primitive: either fight or flight. But we actually have more options than we may realize.
No matter the insult, Miron-Shatz says we can either diminish or amplify its power to offend, based on our interpretation. The things that bother us aren’t so much about the insult, but how we perceive them based on the story we tell ourselves.
“The more we disentangle the facts from our interpretation, the easier it is for us to say, ‘Actually, I am hurting myself with this incident. And if I interpret it differently I will feel better,'” she said. “That’s ultimately your goal. No one wants to feel bad or offended.”
It’s easiest to see this dynamic in the most extreme cases: people who seem chronically offended. These are miserable individuals who get insulted at the littlest things. They misinterpret innocent gestures as subtle digs at their character and mishear unintentional comments in the worst possible way. We’re forced to walk on eggshells around these folks or risk bruising their delicate egos.
Miron-Shatz explains that such people are trapped in confirmation bias. Their inner story says something like “I am rejected,” or “I am unloved,” or “my friends don’t appreciate me.” But instead of trying to rewrite their sad tale, they’re constantly looking for evidence to validate it.
“They will find it in everything because the world is full of ambiguous things,” Miron-Shatz said. “If someone smiles, you can think, ‘Oh, they’re a nice person,’ or ‘they like me.’ Or you can think, ‘They just feel sorry for me.’”
How can we learn to reframe the situation when we feel offended? By separating fact from fiction. Think about what was actually said, and consider if you may have twisted its meaning to fit a story of your own design.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with the world, or maybe there’s something wrong with the way we’re looking at the world,” Miron-Shatz said. “Until we fix ourselves, we will keep finding this evidence that we’re being offended or disregarded.”
If your offender is legitimately cruel, you still decide how it will affect you. Kids chant this lesson in a rhyme: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” However, even adults have a hard time putting it into practice.
How can mere words have the power to set off such a strong reaction inside us? According to Paul Levin, a certified hypnotherapist, life coach, and the author of “Your Life Sucks No More: The Ultimate Guide to Manifesting Your Perfect Life,” our sensitivity to what other people say stems from fear. The antidote is confidence.
“When we are fearful over what other people may think of us, regarding some issue in our life, we will often be intolerant of any opinion that disagrees with ours. By contrast, when we are 1,000 percent confident in our opinion and our decisions on a subject, it doesn’t matter what someone else has to say. We’re right, and that’s it,” Levin said.
In addition to confronting the fears that make us vulnerable to offense, Levin says we also need to drop another common fear: that we may accidentally offend someone. Going out of your way to avoid stepping on overly sensitive toes is unfair to you. It can be extremely restrictive, and only enables the dysfunctional behavior of the easily offended individual.
“Get over it,” Levin said. “All of that offense is in them. It need not have any effect on you.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should intentionally provoke a sensitive soul. Riling someone up for the fun of it or expressing a controversial opinion at an inappropriate time helps no one. Instead, share your confidence. Help them to change a sad inner story.
“Think intently about all of the things you love about that person while they’re yelling at you. Say nothing. They will literally change their behavior right in front of your eyes,” Levin said.